Consider Yoghurt

Views on BG | July 20, 2010, Tuesday // 14:25|  views

Homemade Bulgarian yougurt. Photo by BGNES

Oliver Thring

It lengthens the shelf life of milk and, some claim, does something similar for humans. How do you enjoy this ancient culture?

We start with Bulgaria. Squatting in a gusty corner of Europe, the luckless heir of a rotten legacy from the departed Soviets and, until recently, a famed and corrupt haven for gangsters and goons. Nor somewhere feted for its food.

And yet. Bulgaria's Rhodope mountains have historically held the highest concentration in Europe of people who live to be 100. Bulgarians live longer than neighbouring Romanians, despite their lower per capita GDP. And they eat a lot of yoghurt: up to 30kg a year, much of it still made at home. (Consumption has apparently fallen a little over the last decade as western food has grown more popular.) The trite, tiresome remark that correlation does not prove causation has become the pseudy cliche of many an armchair bore, but at any rate it's clear the yoghurt does these people no harm.

Yoghurt is milk fermented by bacteria, its lactose converted into lactic acid. That critical characteristic is the main reason it became popular. Although it was probably discovered in a number of places simultaneously and by accident, yoghurt first established itself in west and central Asia. Around 90% of Mongolians, for example, are lactose intolerant and unable to drink milk in any great quantity. Yoghurt, with its invigorating lactic acid tartness, provides them with a digestible dairy product, with the further advantage that it keeps far longer than milk.

The food spread gradually through the Balkans, finding a home in Bulgaria at least as early as 800AD, and then trickled into Europe. But it took a long time for yoghurt to become a staple. In 1542, François I lay mopish and squitty with diarrhoea, depression or both. The French king heard that his ally Suleyman the Magnificent in Constantinople had a remarkable Jewish doctor who reportedly cured anything with a miracle tonic made from the milk of his sheep. François sent for the medic, who trudged across Europe with his flock over several weeks to reach Paris. A course of sheep's yoghurt was prescribed, and the king was cured. All the sheep died, sadly, and the doctor headed home despite François pleading for him to stay.

Yoghurt's modern popularity should be attributed to Elie Metchnikoff, a Ukrainian scientist who first noted the longevity of those Bulgarian villagers and who discovered and named one of the main bacteria in their yoghurt, Bacillus bulgaricus. Metchnikoff believed that this organism destroyed the "wild, putrefying bacilli in our large intestine".

He lived to be 71, consuming "untold gallons" of yoghurt according to Time magazine. One of the longest-lived people of modern times, a Turkish gentleman named Zaro Agha who was reportedly between 157 and 164 years old when he died in 1934, attributed his longevity to the large amounts of yoghurt he ate throughout his life. Perhaps that association encouraged one Swedish dairy, Lindahl's, to emblazon its "Turkish" yoghurt with a photograph of a robust-looking older man. Unhappily for Lindahl's, their subject turned out to be Greek, and last week a judge ordered the dairy to pay the Delphian €160,000 in damages.

The French, with that curious obsession they have for their bowels, fell in love with the stuff. Danone, founded in Barcelona in 1919 but for the last 60 years a French company headquartered in Paris, is the world's largest producer of dairy products. By the middle of the last century, French doctors were prescribing yoghurt to treat a range of digestive symptoms, and claims for these supposed benefits continue to ring hollowly from tubs and cartons in supermarket fridges. Earlier this year, Danone had to issue an embarrassing retraction of the supposed medicinal effects it had trumpeted for its brands Activia and Actimel. The company is no longer trying to lobby EU doctors to parrot its grandiose health claims, but this is unlikely to affect the French love of yoghurt.

As a staple in Europe and America, yoghurt is a rare example of an Asian food becoming mainstream in the west. The Canadians have reportedly taken to it in recent years, and sales continue to rise at the top end of the British market. Following the success of a number of American chains, frozen yoghurt bars like Snog and Yu-Foria are proliferating in trendy parts of British cities, marketing their product as a less fatty alternative to ice cream.

I've grown to love the barnyard tang of sheep's yoghurt: Woodlands do a nice one which is good for cooking with as well as eating raw, as sheep's yoghurt is more stable than cow's. I'm keen to try to the mare's milk kumis of Kazakhstan and the steppe: a slightly boozy yoghurt drink, and one of the few things of gastronomic interest in what is, by all accounts, a grim and insipid cuisine.

Lassi is of course delicious, as are raita and tzatziki, variants on a similar theme. I'm less fond of the commercial confections muddled with stewed fruit and cloyed with emulsifiers and stabilisers, which are often tooth-achingly sweet. But there is something endearingly Proustian in a dinky pot of Petits Filous, despite the weird adverts depicting kids snogging to get hold of it. How do you like to eat this cultured culture?

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Tags: yoghurt, Bulgaria


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